Rei Kawakubo Has No Plans to Retire

Rei Kawakubo.
Rei Kawakubo. Photo: Bernard Weil/Getty Images

Rei Kawakubo might be the most reclusive fashion designer out there, never giving bows at her shows and ducking photographs. She rarely gives interviews, either, but recently made an exception to speak to The Guardian. The 72-year-old, who says she has no intention of retiring, offered rare insight into the creative and business sides of her label. (She is adamant about never taking on a financial backer, an anomaly amid the multibrand conglomerates that dominate the luxury landscape.)

Kawakubo has always done things a bit differently. When she opened her first Comme des Garçons boutique in Tokyo in the early ‘70s,  it lacked mirrors, she says, “to emphasize the notion that one should buy clothes because of how they make you feel, not how they make you look.” When she began showing in Paris in the ‘80s, her aesthetic was out of step with the prevailing excess of the time. Her clothes were called “rags,” her aficionados were dubbed “crows,” and she was even accused of propagating “Hiroshima Chic,” which she vehemently denies. “Although I never went hungry I remember well the extreme poverty and devastation of those times,” Kawakubo tells the paper. “But this had no bearing on my work whatsoever. These critics had it all wrong. Being born in Japan was an accident. There is no direct correlation to my work. Growing up in postwar Japan has made me the person I am, but it is not why I do the work I do. It is a very personal thing — everything comes from inside.”

That said, it sounds as though every once in a while her work does spring from the world around her — notably when she designed her 1997 collection featuring checked dresses with built-in humps, which was a reaction to seeing a Gap store window filled with all-black clothes. And she’s breached her reclusive state to collaborate with the likes of Apple and Pharrell Williams. “Although I do not believe in fame,” she admits, “what it brings me is the fact that I can ask someone to work with me and they do not say no.”